Black Gold: Oil, Human Rights, and Virunga National Park

When we speak of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it evokes images of lush tropical forests, snow peaked mountains, active volcanoes, and iconic species, such as the endangered mountain gorilla. Since 1979, Virunga has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its biotic and abiotic importance [10]. However, Virunga has been severally damaged and degraded by nearly two decades of conflict [4, 8, 12]. As the prospect of a lasting peace in the recent peace agreement between the government and M23 rebels, a new enemy encroaches on Virunga: oil [4, 13].


The mountain gorilla, one of the many endemic species threatened by oil activities (WWF, 2014)

The Albertine Rift is regarded as the most promising region for oil exploration in the Rift Valley, with an estimated one-billion barrels. Currently, in total, eighty-five percent of the 7,844-km2 park has been designated for oil concessions. In 2010, SOCO International plc (SOCO), the only oil company willing to enter Virunga, secured licences for the Block V concession [3, 4, 13].


Virunga National Park—The Block V Concession licensed to SOCO (WWF, 2014)

In 2011, the DRC’s environment minister, José Endundo, suspended exploration in Block V, citing SOCO’s environmental impact assessment (EIA), describing it as “premature, cursory and falling short of the standards we have a right to expect” [11]. However, the president overturned the decision and issued a decree granting SOCO the right to begin aeromagnetic surveys across Block V [1, 5, 7, 11]. While oil exploitation in Virunga is of grave concern, oil represents a real threat to stability and security in the vulnerable post-conflict DRC [6, 13]. All too often, companies that fail to implement a systematic and sincere human rights evaluation serve a cautionary example for corporate obligation and responsibility.

Currently, SOCO’s human rights policy is solely embodied in their online Human Rights Commitment—a six paragraph description of respect and recognition of rights and protocols, and their Code of Business Conduct and Ethics [2]. While it contains positive corporate social responsibility, it fails to actualize a process to ensure human rights. While SOCO may have “fulfilled” its EIA obligations, it has failed to present convincing evidence of a systematic attempt to consider human rights impacts upon its initial engagement or thereafter [4, 13]. The historical circumstances of opaque management of mineral resources by both the state and corporations in the DRC demands the implementation of a systematic and comprehensive human rights impact assessment [8, 12].


A range watches over Virunga from the ICCN Congolese Conservation Centre (Brent Stirton, 2013)

Oil irrefutably impacts livelihoods, Nigeria’s Niger Delta is case in point. Oil extraction can exacerbate and compound the longstanding regional poverty, inter-communal infighting, armed conflict, and the underlining competition over natural resources; therefore, there is a need for systematic, thorough, human rights due diligence [4, 5, 11, 13]. The regional and international public outcry now facing SOCO is a wake-up call and warning to all extractive industries about the risks of not implementing human rights due diligence [5, 6, 7]. In order for SOCO to avoid compounding conflict dynamics and associated human rights abused in the DRC in relation to resource conflicts, it is essential that SOCO commits to a human rights due diligence framework [13]. A few paltry paragraphs of human rights policies will not suffice. This point should be stressed to all companies: engaging strictly in EIA is increasingly inadequate in such vulnerable circumstances as unstable, post-conflict regions. Virunga and its communities have survived many threats, can it endure another?


[1] Armitage, Jim. “A Murky Deal for the Congo as Oil Exploration Threatens Corruption and Environmental Damage – and London-based Soco International Is First in the Queue.” The Independent. Accessed March 13, 2014.–and-londonbased-soco-international-is-first-in-the-queue-8947899.html.

[2] “Human Rights Commitment.” Accessed March 3, 2014.

[3] “Block V and the Virunga National Park”. Accessed March 3, 2014.

[4] International Crisis Group. Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?, 2012.

[5] “Local Pressure Mounts Against Oil in Virunga.” WWF. Accessed March 13, 2014.

[6] “‘Oil Threat’ to Africa’s Oldest Park.” BBC, July 31, 2013, sec. Africa.

[7] “Oil Threat to Virunga’s Mountain Gorillas.” The Ecologist. Accessed March 13, 2014.

[8] Prunier, G. (2009) Africa’s world war: Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and the making of a continental catastrophe. New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] “Soco’s Oil Exploration in Virunga Violates OECD Guidelines – WWF UK.” Accessed March 13, 2014.

[10] “Virunga National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre.” Accessed March 13, 2014.

[11] “Virunga National Park Has a New Enemy: Oil.” GlobalPost. Accessed March 13, 2014.

[12] Vlassenroot, K. (2006) “A societal view on violence and war: conflict and militia formation in Eastern Congo”, in Kaarsholm, P. (ed.) Violence, political culture, and development in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, pp. 49-65.

[13] Wass, Gabriella. “Why Businesses Should Assess Human Rights Impacts from the Outsets of Projects: SOCO Internaitonal Oil Company in Virunga National Park, DRC.” IPIS, 2013.


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